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18:32:27, Saturday, 25 Mar 2017
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Toiling for gold

Once a small, dusty village, Miri Barra is now teeming with men and women breaking rocks and sifting dirt through orange-coloured water 20 metres underground.

 
Accompanied by a radio as they work, these people are searching for gold.
 
Some 17 kilometres north of Kadugli, the village has a bustling souq (market) where the miners, working most of the day and with the help of a headlamp at night, enjoy a cup of tea during their break.
 
According to Sheikh Abdelkarim Musa, the population of Miri Barra has grown from 500 to about 3,000 within the past four months, thanks to the recent gold rush.
 
Those who left the area during Sudan’s north-south war have been trickling back to try their luck, digging inside deep, narrow and dark “wells” with basic tools. They break rocks into smaller pieces, pulverizing and sifting them using the toxic metal mercury, and selling the hard-produced gold to merchants.
 
Eldasogy Yahia has been working as a gold digger in Miri Barra for three months, after working as a seasonal construction worker in Khartoum for the past 10 years.
 
He returned to his hometown knowing that gold had been discovered here four years ago with the help of metal detectors. “Work in Khartoum was periodic, but here I can work constantly,” he said.
 
Mr. Yahia, living in a small, thatched hut among the gold wells, claimed to earn about 1,500 Sudanese pounds ($560) per month digging for gold and planned to continue the back-breaking job for some time.
 
“I want to build a home, buy a motorcycle and (using gold profits) develop Miri village,” Mr. Yahia said.
 
With merchants flocking to the local souq from Khartoum buying one gram of gold for about 110 pounds ($41), business seems to flourish.
 
Village chief Mr. Musa also acknowledged development seen since the recent gold rush.
 
“Before, women used to carry water and other things on their heads and do farming with old tools,” he said, adding “but now you can see cars and motorbikes, and there is bread at the market while there was none before”.
 
According to the Sheikh, gold profits would be used to build a school, hospital and much-needed road as well as bridge, as in the rainy season the town becomes unreachable due to lack of paved roads.
 
Although gold digging in Miri Barra is not yet officially regulated, the town committee allocated plots to villagers who then organized groups or wardiya, consisting of five to six men.
 
Part of the profit went to the locality’s administration and the rest was shared at the end of each day, with a bigger portion due to the well owner.
 
Gold being one of Sudan’s most valuable resources, the federal ministry of minerals was hoping to regulate artisanal exploration of it in the near future.
 
According to ministry geologist Elsheikh Abdelrahman, regulation was needed to benefit gold-producing states and curb gold smuggling, as well as enhance workers’ protection and rights.
 
By privatizing mining and signing contracts with companies, including Chinese, Indian and Canadian establishments, the Government of Sudan receives royalties and tax profits.
 
The producing state then gets two per cent of the federal net revenue, according to Mr. Abdelrahman. But traditional mining largely remains untaxed and carries health as well as environmental risks.
 
Artisanal miners often use mercury to amalgamate gold, after crushing and powdering rocks, pouring it into water and sifting it, which can contaminate rare water sources in mining areas, the geologist added.
 
According to the ministry, Sudan produced some 70 tons of gold in 2010, the majority of which was artisanal. Mr. Abdelrahman noted that this year some 65 tons might be produced across the country, out of which no more than 10 tons would likely be through official channels.
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